Is remote working exacerbating employee mental health?

Business Chief talks to mental health pioneer and MD of PUSH Mind & Body, Emma Fernandes, about workplace wellbeing and how businesses can take action

It’s no secret that the pandemic has spurred a series of cascading workplace problems, from rising mental health issues, to organisational struggles and a marked decline in the importance and effectiveness of work.

Recently released research from PUSHMind & Body, a leading UK-based wellbeing and mental health training company, reveals that not only has work gone down in the list of UK employees’ priorities (from 48% saying it was most important priority pre-pandemic, to just one in five post-pandemic) but mental health challenges have risen.

Research from PUSH and Mind found that 37% of UK employees are suffering from worse mental health than before the pandemic, with nearly three-quarters (73%) citing work as at least partially responsible.

Which raises an interesting question – if the post-pandemic working model – remote or hybrid working – is supposed to offer employees a better quality of life, then why are people suffering more? Could it be from a lack of connection, meaning, purpose, support?

To answer that, find out more about the drop in work satisfaction levels and rise in mental health issues, and learn what businesses can do to remedy the situation for employees, we talk to Emma Fernandes, a pioneer within the UK mental health community.

Emma is Managing Director of PUSH mind and body, a company on a mission to make mental health and wellbeing better, globally, by giving organisations and its leaders and employees the tools to improve it themselves.

What impact has the pandemic had on employees, and what are the consequences of this for businesses?

We now know that the increase in anxiety and depression UK-wide has come about as a direct result of isolation and loneliness caused by the pandemic.

Working remotely during the pandemic, and since for some, has its positives and negatives. While it does mean people can be there to support their families and look after children, it has brought about disconnection, lack of creativity, and isolation. This has exacerbated people’s anxieties and lack of purpose. Many employees feel disengaged with their teams, as managers micro-manage from afar, or feel mistrust.

Unfortunately, managers are not equipped to deal with these issues as they have not been properly trained, so are failing to support people in work. They are lacking in the skills required for such complex issues and companies are struggling to retain their workforce. People are citing work as a direct factor to the stress they are feeling post-pandemic.

The pandemic has also led to a reset of people’s value systems and shifting of priorities. Being seen as more than an employee and being valued has become a priority. Wellbeing is now at the top of most people’s list of priorities, and they expect this to form part of the tapestry within their working lives.

For businesses and employees, the consequences are huge – marked decrease in growth, profitability, output, and trust, as well as increased mental health issues, suicide, and an impact on family and social structure. We know that retention is already an issue – companies are drastically increasing the pay to attract and retain, yet this is still not enough.

Also, an increase in what has become known as Quiet Quitting, a recent phenomenon common with the younger generations that involves an employee doing only what the job demands, to the letter of the job description, and no more – so no going above and beyond, no additional duties, and no working to burnout!

Post-pandemic, people are quietly demonstrating they no longer wish to sacrifice their own wellbeing and work/life balance and are putting self-preservation at the forefront.

What do employees want from their workplace in this ‘new normal’?

They are looking for not just a work/life balance but a place of psychological safety, a place that means they can bring their whole selves to work. They want and deserve far more than a price tag.

The cultures of old will no longer stand the test of time. Being present is not enough, feeling valued and motivated by a genuine human connection must be the priority. Those businesses that ladder their values and moral compass back to this are genuinely seeing the increase in productivity. 

Ultimately, it comes down to employees feeling valued and their needs being met more than being grateful to just be employed.

The companies that connected with their teams as individuals and implemented new ways of working through connection throughout the pandemic, and that demonstrated true care and commitment to employees even whilst taking a financial hit are the companies that have retained and thrived in the post-pandemic era.

Employers have a moral obligation to support where they can. Having a process and policy that ensures all employees are supported mentally as well as financially throughout is important.

What actions can the C-suite take to ensure managers and teams are well-equipped in the wellbeing department?

The answer lies in having a genuine and empathetic understanding of how the people in your business are feeling and using this insight to create and maintain a working culture and environment that makes employees feel safe. Only then can you be sure everyone feels heard, is comfortable in their vulnerability, connected with their teammates, and confident to excel and innovate in all areas of work.  

If you want to change the way people are feeling, create a space where they feel able to talk openly, share their own challenges and issues, and encourage this behaviour to take place regularly. Safe spaces are not about creating a physical space, but rather a culture where employees can show up authentically and speak up in psychologically safe environments – promoting positive mental health for all.

And yet, so many companies are still struggling with this very simple concept. Implementing a true culture of change when it comes to mental health and wellbeing in the workplace and listening and acting accordingly with the correct training, support and infrastructure makes this achievable.

Taking the time to connect and establish oneself as more than the person employed to do a role means employers are far more likely to engage with employees in a positive way, meaning that productivity and the breakdown of disconnection can be achieved.

What companies do you see addressing employee mental health positively?

Those businesses that we see with happy employees are the ones that have implemented genuine change. I don’t mean paying lip service to it by holding a wellbeing Wednesday each month or by even offering mental health first aid for employees. The genuinely happy employees and productive businesses are those that cascade mental health and wellbeing throughout the entire organisation and have it at the top of their board agendas.

Rightmove, the UK’s number one property website, is a good example. In early 2021, Rightmove came to us with some in-house wellbeing survey results from December 2020 that showed 93% of the Rightmove team felt it was a great place to work, but 1 in 5 described their wellbeing as “poor” during the lockdown period and had struggled more with their mental health vs their physical health.

Our challenge was to create a bespoke mental health and wellbeing programme to protect, prevent, and restore positive mental health during the multiple stages of lockdown.  Following this programme, Rightmove returned to us and asked us to develop a new programme, one that would evolve to meet the team's ever-changing wellbeing needs into 2022. 

Companies like RightMove, who are taking steps to understand their employees’ mental health and wellbeing, and then taking action to support them, are the ones successfully addressing the issue. It’s important to show your employees you have listened and will provide a solution, rather than just providing a box-ticking exercise. 

A layered approach to an organisation-wide programme is always the most successful. 

The first step should be about providing leadership training to understand and implement an authentic culture of change in the workplace and focus on the mental health and wellbeing of individuals within. Creating psychological safety from the top.

Then you should look at management training – ensuring managers have the skills to recognise issues, to communicate effectively as well as learning what a safe space for individuals is when needed.  Finally, providing training programmes for individual employees to show them how to look after their own mental health and wellbeing, how and when to take responsibility and when to ask for help. 

About Emma Fernandes – and PUSH Mind & Body

A pioneer within the UK mental health community, Emma began her career in the NHS working at an acute mental health admissions ward before turning her focus to recovery – moving into the third sector where she led one of the UK’s first vocational advice services providing workplace-related mental health support for employees, employers, jobseekers. 

Prior to her move to Solent Mind as Business Development Director, she worked with the Hampshire-based charity to set up a ground-breaking mental health initiative with Portsmouth Solent NHS Trust. Focused on providing mental health wellbeing and recovery support in the workplace, this partnership became the basis of a national model for the NHS.    

Emma is now MD for leading wellbeing and mental health training company, PUSH Mind & Body. PUSH specialise in delivering better mental health, wellbeing, development and management for a range of clients, from global organisations to boutique brands.  


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